Learning to socialize and make new friends can be a challenge for any child and indeed, many adults. There’s always going to be a little bit of anxiety around approaching people that you don’t know very well, introducing yourself and building a new relationship with them.
For children with autism, it can be even more difficult. Autistic children tend to have more of a tough time than others when it comes to reading social cues such as body language, hand gestures, facial expressions and figures of speech. Unsurprisingly, many parents of children with autism are anxious about this, too. When social skills don’t come naturally to your child, you might find yourself worried about their future friendship and social circle. Will they be able to make friends and maintain close friendships? Are they going to struggle to get to know people? Will they be lonely?
Thankfully for parents, there are many strategies that you can use to help your child develop these social skills and practice at home.
Start With The Basics
Starting with the simple things is important when helping an autistic child develop better social skills. It’s important to make sure that they can make the distinction between people who are and aren’t their friends; for example, some children might think that bullies are actually their friends. So, start out by helping them understand what a friend is. For example, ask them if they like to spend time with people who are nice to them. Ask them if they have anybody in their life now who they would consider to be a friend, and why. With many autistic kids, it’s important to be literal; say things like ‘a friend is somebody who treats you nicely and spends time doing fun things with you’.
Use Visuals And Scripts
Children with autism often benefit from using scripts or visuals that can model a conversation, like social stories for autism. Carol Gray’s social stories were designed to help children with autism better visualize and understand common social situations and give them something that they can use to practice these situations ahead of finding themselves in them for real. They can be incredibly useful for demonstrating to your child how real-life social situations work and help them gain a better understanding of what to do when making friends and interacting with friends. You can find out more about autism social stories and see some social story examples at Autism Parenting Magazine; a really useful resource for parents with kids who have autism filled with tips and advice to help you with socialization and much more.
Practice In The Real World
Many parents of children with autism are anxious about public settings, especially if your child tends to get easily overwhelmed and melts down in public often. But getting your child out into social settings is essential for helping them practice their social skills and make friends. You don’t have to go somewhere crowded or busy; arranging a meet-up in a quiet area with a couple of friends is ideal for kids who tend to get overwhelmed easily with large crowds or lots of noise. And, get your child involved in planning meetings; for example, have them come up with a list of activities that they would like to do with their friend or allow them to help you prepare snacks for the day.
Work Around Your Child’s Interests
Many of us have made friends due to a common interest like a hobby, sports or music, and this tends to work really well for children with autism, too. Chances are that there are at least a couple of things that your child is really interested in that they could make friends from. For example, if they love art, sign them up for an art class in your local area geared towards kids their age where they can meet like-minded peers who share a common interest with them. They will already have things in common and conversation points that will make socializing much easier compared to trying to speak to somebody who doesn’t share many interests with them.
Take Your Time
Social skills are often one of the main things that children with autism struggle with, so bear in mind that they won’t become a social butterfly overnight and they may always prefer their own space, which is perfectly normal and fine. Consider your goals for your child over the long-term and make sure that they are realistic in terms of what they are going to be able to handle and be comfortable with. And, help your child practice at home using social stories or fun role-playing.
For many parents of autistic kids, the worry about them struggling to make friends is a real one. Thankfully, there are many things that you can do to help your child make friendships that blossom.